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The limits of software

In 2011, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote a widely discussed essay provocatively called “software is eating the world.” One of the illustrations for the web edition of this piece looked like this:

An Angry Bird

It’s a pixelated version of the main (red) bird in the breakthrough mobile game, “Angry Birds,” one of the so-called “killer apps” of early iOS and Android devices. “Angry Birds” was as good a microcosm of the then-booming app economy as any other piece of mobile software – it was disarmingly easy to use, cheap, and completely unsustainable.

If you want to play the original “Angry Birds” today, the most straightforward option is to play one of the console ports (e.g, for Wii U or Wii), which offer a frozen-in-time look at the game near the height of its popularity in the early 2010s. The game itself, which retailed for a few dollars, can no longer be bought in the Apple App Store and has been replaced instead by a free-to-play sequel called “Angry Birds 2.”

The first “Angry Birds” did well within the distinct limitations of mobile phones, which lack the buttons, analog sticks, and various oddities of consoles and PCs, despite having very powerful CPUs and GPUs. But it was a dead end, too. There wasn’t a lot of room to go further with innovation in control schemes, plus mobile devices were already so capable in the 2010s that there was never an opportunity for a quantum leap in graphical fidelity like the ones that swept through console gaming from roughly 1996-2006, when 3-D graphics and then HD became mainstream.

But despite seeming not to change that dramatically on the surface – how much different, really, is the iPhone 11 from the iPhone 6 you might idly wonder – mobile devices and their games have changed rapidly under the surface, dropping support for older 32-bit apps, adding new APIs, etc. on a yearly basis. Their app ecosystems have also evolved just as fast, from paid software in the early days (Angry Birds was once a one-time purchase) to free-to-play and subscription models.

Despite being only a bit over a decade old, “Angry Birds” seems like a relic now. It couldn’t go outside the limits of rock-bottom mobile app pricing nor the restrictive controls possible on a slab form factor phone, and now ironically the best place to experience it as it was is on one of the consoles that it and the other early mobile games were supposed to make obsolete. The Wii U, which sold a meager 12 million units, has a touch screen controller with a stylus that it basically perfect for playing “Angry Birds” and the fact that that console is discontinued means that there aren’t any of the commercial or technological pressures that will necessitate ongoing updates to its version of the game for it to remain playable. Meanwhile, the iOS version to “Angry Birds” from 2010 might as well not exist anymore.

Andreessen himself recently published a new essay lamenting how no one “builds” things anymore, mainly physical things that would have been helpful to have in hospitals, which after all need much more than software. In other words; he seemed to be moving on from the “software is eating the world” optimism because software is, despite being infinitely malleable, limited in its own ways.

It’s limited in the audiences it can reach, as developers like email client makers HEY recently found out.

It’s limited in its preservation, as “Angry Birds” demonstrates.

It’s limited in how it can be commercialized, as the dominance of free-to-play games shows.

It’s limited by the types of hardware that can be built and shipped in a world beset by climate and public health crises.

Software has limits, just like the earth itself. Andreessen’s pivot since 2011 is a strange but welcome way of someone coming to terms with that notion.

Old technology and “videophonic stress”

Seven years ago, I worked for a startup in Chicago’s West Loop. We had the stereotypical setup – open floor plan, huge Thunderbolt monitors for our MacBooks Pro, and lots of cold brew coffee in the office refrigerator. The whole company presented itself as being very modern, but our project was at its heart super old-fashioned – marking up PDFs.

PDF was initially released in the summer of 1993, or not long after I finished the first grade. No document extension has achieved anywhere near the universality of the classic .pdf, with the possible exception of Microsoft Word’s .doc(x). (Another story: When applying for a job in the desperate times of 2011, I once got pinged for not sending my resume as a .doc because the recipient’s computer couldn’t open .docx).

The PDF dinosaur is hardly an exception, though. Old tech is everywhere, despite the software industry’s unending focus on What’s Next and Disruption and any other number of Capitalized concepts (pun intended, I suppose, for all the Marxists out there):

  • Email is over 50 years old.
  • The x-86 processor dates to the Carter administration.
  • The Internet as we know it is built on top of a bunch of protocols that are mostly 20+ years old…
  • …including Wi-Fi (1997) and Ethernet (the early 1980s).

Maybe what’s even more impressive than the age of man seemingly “new” technologies is how their actual day-to-day use was foreseen decades ago. The portions of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” on video meetings are notably famous for exploring the anxieties of video meetings (popular now among the white collar set during the Covid-19 pandemic):

“It turned out there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces…Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to full attention to her…you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone-pad haiku, stir things on the stove…Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers now found that they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener’s expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges…And the videophonic stress was even worse if you were at all vain.”

In the novel, video calling actually falls out of fashion because of how it forces participants to perform the part of the interested listener/viewer. That hasn’t happened in the real world just yet, although I do find that a lot of people enable video by mistake on webinar and online meeting platforms, only to disable it later after they either don’t like the look of their own face or don’t want others to see what they’re doing (presumably).

Now that online meetings are “normal” – even though they’ve been around for years and were imagined to their logical extremes by a novel written in the early 1990s – videophonic stress is everywhere, especially for companies that can’t settle for anything less than a full-on simulation of How Things Used To Be (meaning, video conferences, just like everyone was around a table – the “good old days” of wasting tens of hours collectively on something that could have covered over email, and should have been covered over email considering that it’s the only way most remote workers communicate at all). Ultimatley, so much “new” tech – video conferences, workplace chat like Slack, etc – are there to recreate the semblance of something old – the in-office meetup, mostly.

Looking to join in on the fun, I once turned on video on a call when using a 2010 vintage laptop that I had outfitted with a new solid-state drive, more RAM, and a fresh install of Ubuntu. (Lots of old tech here, too: optical drive [early 1980s], VGA connector [1987], USB-A [late 1990s], Linux kernel [1991]). The frame rate was abysmal – I looked like I was in slow motion, perhaps in a bunker on a different planet. It helped with my vanity – since it didn’t look like me much at all, the distorted image seeming more like a painting – but also discouraged me from using video at all since it felt like such an Uncanny Valley to look at myself in 30 FPS or lower. Audio-only, then, using the 100 year-old headphone jack. It’s old technology all the way down…

The 2020 Democratic Primary, Part 2: Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

The state of Illinois makes it very easy to vote. Rather than stand in line on election day, you can vote absentee, via mail, or early with no excuse, with early voting allowed for two weeks prior. ID is not required, either.

All of this is to say I voted for Hillary Clinton well ahead of Election Day 2016, both because I really wanted to see her win – more so than I did John Kerry in 2004 or Barack Obama in 2008 – and because I was terrified of the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. I early voted a straight Democratic ticket despite having, only 8 months prior, cast my primary ballot for Bernie Sanders.

(Clinton had won the Illinois primary that March by a narrow margin. Although she had carried Chicago, she was badly outrun elsewhere in the state, to the point that even her landslide margins among the Prairie State’s significant black vote were barely enough for victory. She then carried it easily in the general election, albeit by a lesser margin than Obama had in either of his runs.)

After I early voted, I stopped by at a Popeye’s Chicken on the NW side of Chicago to get lunch and went back home to eat and continue working. When I opened my laptop up, I saw a notification that James Comey had reopened his investigation into Clinton’s email server. It was Friday, Oct. 28, 2016, and Election Day was only 96 hours away. Despite the confidence and civic pride I felt at my early vote, I now dreaded the backlash and the possibility of a loss.

While many elaborate explanations have been offered for what the 2016 election was Really About (trade, immigration, industrial policy, etc.) it was ultimately just about Hillary Clinton.

“Likable Enough”

My contradictory feelings toward Clinton – all-in for her against Trump, very against her in the primary – sort of captured the uniquely polarizing nature of her candidacy – even among Democrats! While the right-wing was never going to cross-over to her in significant numbers, the intraparty tensions in the Democratic Party of 2016 meant that she struggled mightily both to win the nomination and to rally the party’s base in November.

Bernie Sanders, a gadfly who never formally became a Democrat, won almost half the pledged delegates in the 2016 primary despite starting off with no name recognition or money and going up against the most famous woman in the world. That’s crazy! But it wasn’t necessarily an endorsement of his agenda. Most of all, it was an endorsement of him as Not-Clinton.

Sanders won easy victories in the Western states that had bucked Clinton in 2008, while also adding the Rust Belt states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the Left Coast other than California (where he nevertheless came within 7%), portions of Appalachia, and most of his home turf in New England. These areas all shared large populations of white working class voters, many of whom are likely no longer even Democrats. They went hard for Sanders in 2016, but mostly in protest, it seems.

For example, Sanders won easily in West Virginia, and leftist publications like Jacobin interpreted this as the white working class getting on board with socialism. The notion of an ancestrally Democratic state like WV swinging back over to the party after years of GOP dominance – but only in response to an avowedly socialist campaign – is as nostalgic and romantic to the modern American left as the attachment to outmoded 20th century tactics like canvassing , which I discussed in the first part of this series.

But mostly, it was just conservative and moderate Democrats giving a big thumbs down to Hillary Clinton, whether because of sexism or reservations about her record.

How do we know this, other than the fact that many of the states Sanders carried in 2016 ended up voting GOP against Clinton? Well, without getting to into the weeds, his 2020 campaign has fallen off mightily from its 2016 heights, losing or barely winning many of the states where he ran strongest in 2016:

  • He upset Clinton in Michigan by crushing it in rural areas of the state; this year, he might not even win a single county in the Wolverine State.
  • He won New Hampshire with a bare 26%, the lowest ever in the history of that primary, after getting over 60% in 2016.
  • He will probably have dropped out by the time Wisconsin, one of his most substantial victories in 2016, even votes.

Basically, Bernie 2016 was two things: 1) a strong core of young and very liberal supporters and 2) a massive sink for anti-Clinton votes. He outlasted the other also-rans in the D primary that year because of #1, but it was #2 that took him to the brink of the nomination. The anti-Clinton bloc was so strong that I feel confident saying even Lincoln Chafee, the soft-spoken Republican turned Independent turned Democrat turned Libertarian, whom I once ran into at a Starbucks in Providence, could have racked up a bunch of primary and caucus victories had the race come down to him and Clinton. Barack Obama was on to something when he sarcastically said Clinton was “likable enough” in one of the 2008 debates.

The absence of Hillary Clinton from the 2020 election meant that the Sanders 2020 campaign needed a new blueprint – but it never got one.

What Went Wrong?

An early article about Sanders 2020 by Edward-Isaac Dovere outlined the weird strategy of the campaign, which boiled down to somehow maintaining that strong core of support in a highly fractured field and coming away with a victory despite only getting 30% of the vote. Basically, a plurality victory.

At the same time, the campaign talked about how it needed unprecedented turnout from unlikely voters to win. Taken with the above point about pluralities, these strategies seemed to indicate that Bernie 2020 was scared of the Democratic primary electorate and needed to basically win through a trick – i.e., some combination of there being too many candidates in the race (all of them splitting votes), and a surprising turnout that would lead to Sanders vastly outperforming his polling.

In terms of the fractured field, it sort of worked through the first three contests. Sanders basically got a draw with Pete Buttigieg in Iowa, won a narrow victory over him in New Hampshire, and then won by bigger margin in Nevada despite only getting 33% of the vote overall. But then Joe Biden’s massive South Carolina win led to rapid consolidation. Most of the former Buttigieg and Klobuchar voters went to him, as did those who had flirted with voting for Mike Bloomberg. Once the race became Sanders vs Biden, Bernie was doomed, if only because Biden doesn’t have the unique liabilities that Clinton did.

Turnout was never enough to lead Bernie to the types of sweeping victories his campaign likely imagined. The alarms should have gone off right after Iowa, in this regard. Despite raising $100 million dollars and knocking half the doors in the entire Hawkeye State, the Sanders campaign still lost to Pete Buttigieg, who mostly got earned media coverage and ran just a few TV ads. In New Hampshire, Bernie volunteers knocked a majority of all the doors there but likely would have lost outright had Amy Klobuchar not destroyed Pete Buttigieg at the final debate, lowering his numbers. Combined, those two got over half the vote.

Nevada seemingly went to plan, but Biden actually outran his poll numbers and won black voters by double digits – that, too, should have sounded the alarm that the Sanders campaign was in trouble. Black, moderate and suburban voters were waiting to consolidate behind a not-Bernie candidate, and they did so in South Carolina. In a way, the 2020 primary ended up being a reverse of the 2016 one, with an anti-Sanders bloc being a huge but not decisive force shaping it.

Why the GOP 2016 Primary Was Different

Perhaps the Sanders campaign imagined winning the primary in a similar way to Trump 2016. Trump won a lot of early states with only 30-35% of the vote, while Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich split what amounted to a majority of the vote. Had two of those latter three dropped out before Super Tuesday, a la Buttigieg and Klobuchar in 2020, Trump might have been stopped, but it still would have been close due to his broad appeal across the GOP primary electorate.

Sanders 2020 was a very different beast from Trump 2016, and not just on policy grounds (obviously). First, he never really got to the 35% level Trump did, instead winning with 26% and 33%. His support was never as broad either, instead being concentrated in white and Hispanic voters under 50. And most of all, he wasn’t the choice of the party’s dominant faction – whereas Trump was the favorite of elderly conservatives (the GOP base), Bernie was not the choice of suburban moderates or older black voters, who between them now form the D base in many populous states.

Essentially, the GOP establishment could not have easily stopped Trump in 2016 due to his popularity with voters and the inability of his rivals to take collective action. In 2020, the Democratic establishment had the voters on its side, and the non-Bernie candidates were more than happy to defer to Biden, in a way that GOP candidates had not done for Ted Cruz in 2016.

The 2020 Democratic Primary, Part 1: Human-Wave Tactics Are So 20th Century

 

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll do on the 2020 Democratic Party primaries.

On a Saturday morning in March 2016, I stepped out of my Chicago home, got into an Uber, and took a ride to the Ukrainian Village. My destination was a small field office for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, which only that past Tuesday had pulled a shocking upset in the Michigan primary.

Despite polls showing Hillary Clinton leading by double digits, Sanders had pulled off a narrow win, buoyed by good margins in the state’s predominantly white rural areas and suburbs. Meanwhile, Clinton hadn’t been able to run up the score enough in Detroit.

The sheer size of the polling error had made me and likely millions of other Bernie supporters question if the race had fundamentally shifted in his favor, despite his struggles not long before on Super Tuesday, when he had only been able to salvage his home state and a few low-turnout caucuses. So I decided to go all-in on the Illinois primary that coming Tuesday.

My task that Saturday was simple: Canvass a list of homes – mostly apartment buildings – in the Ukranian Village. I got a clipboard, addresses, and campaign literature, and set off on my way with a few others.

That morning, I probably canvassed 100 addresses. The response rate was abysmal – I think maybe 2 or 3 people actually answered, and none of them even needed convincing. The number of non-answers was so high that I ran out of literature long before I had exhausted the list.

Basically, it was a huge waste of time. Bernie lost Illinois.

And yet, canvassing is a staple of any serious campaign, right?

The left’s nostalgia for a lost world

In the past, this sort of strategy was indeed integral to numerous  high-profile campaigns, Obama 2012 among them. Obama’s “ground game,” as it was called, was painted as one of the key reasons for his narrow win over Mitt Romney. And it’s even more important in low-turnout local and state elections, where vital offices can be won with just a few thousand votes.

But in presidential races? I don’t think it’s important anymore. My March 2016 morning would have yielded better results for the Sanders campaign had I simply been paid to write a blog post critical of Hillary Clinton and gotten it picked up by media personalities on Twitter.

The absolute best case against the value of the so-called ground game, intensive as it is on canvassing, is the Donald Trump 2016 campaign. Despite Donald Trump being a billionaire, his campaign was notably light on the paid advertisements and overwhelming field operations that people traditionally expect from high-budget operations. He had no ground game, or at least much less so than Ted Cruz and especially Hillary Clinton.

But he did have earned media. Every day, his face was all over CNN, Fox News, Twitter, you name it – he didn’t have to pay for any of that exposures and it all amounted to him getting billions in free coverage. The narrative was conducted on his terms, playing up issues he cared about most – immigration, Clinton’s email server – and never really veering out of his control except for the brief Access Hollywood cycle.

Now flash forward to 2020. Did the Democrats learn from this? For the most part, no.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in particular ignored Trump’s success with earned media and instead went hard on field operations – i.e., lots of local offices and canvassers, like me and the team in 2016. Warren’s Iowa operation was called a “field of dreams,” while Sanders’ team knocked half the doors in Iowa (at least) and were ubiquitous across the Hawkeye State in the weeks leading up to the primary.

To me, this approach reflected the left’s own nostalgia for something that can’t be recaptured: The days of people-powered campaigns, with lots of (often unionized) labor on the ground knocking doors, making calls, leaving flyers, etc. Carrying around a clipboard and talking to people about solidarity and universal healthcare is invigorating! But it’s also a 20th century notion, and politics have changed immensely. Just ask Donald Trump – and Pete Buttigieg.

Pete’s earned media

Alone among the 2020 Democratic candidates in the early part of the race, Buttigieg showed a remarkable ability to stay in the headlines despite having much less money and supporters than either Warren or Sanders. He went on every TV show, podcast, or other media opportunity he could, and the press loved him in response. It was McCain 2000 – another successful insurgent candidacy, at least relative to what it was up against – taken to the nth degree, and it almost worked!

While Warren and Sanders were making untold numbers of calls and door knocks in Iowa, Pete was chilling with the guys on Pod Save America and various Sunday morning shows. On election night in Iowa, he overperformed his polls, the other two underperformed, and he won, gaining another wave of media attention that nearly won him New Hampshire, too – and might have succeeded had it not been for a vicious takedown by Amy Klobuchar in the debate a few days before the primary.

Pete eventually ran aground in Nevada because his base was far too white, but the power of earned media that he – like Trump – had exploited was still there for the taking. And instead of Bernie tapping into it with some overtures at unity, it was Joe Biden, who generated a bunch of good news cycles from his pivotal endorsement by James Clyburn and his blowout win in South Carolina. Despite having essentially no presence in any Super Tuesday state, he won 10 out of 14 them – far outdoing Warren and Sanders, who between them had invested extensively throughout the country.

The earned media over that Feb. 29 – March 1 weekend did it for him. And it should make the left rethink its strategy and probably focus more on controlling media narratives going forward, as uncool as that seems.

 

Color spectrum

I wrote this sort of stream of consciousness a few months ago and decided to share it:

Are lymphocytes indigo, bearing the last-minute label of the Anti-Trinitarian’s spectrum? Magnified a thousand times, I can see them pulsing with new wrinkles and shades within their organic jackets, colored by those dark dyes once imported from India, previously a swollen node of empire and a sliver on a map crisscrossed by the All Red Line, its global arteries circulating opium highs and more silent ailments on a worldwide web of charter documents and exported gunfire and germs.

I’m almost sick but the past, some piece of social construction paper tearing too quickly in my digital memory for its features to be discernible (my mind “processing” and digitizing its shredded text, “encoding” its fake-recollected – from the free self-funded encyclopedia – descriptions of tiny bayonets and gunships and extinct maladies I don’t recall but definitely fondly remember, “storing” those thoughts of mine with the energy sapped from my brain-battery, in a terrible loop of exhaustion) props me up with its forearms that feel like Hercules but look like a skinny Spartan recruit performing rapid jumping jacks – even my microscope here can’t tell which, so who’s to say?

The effect is the same: Asleep-awake, I’m scrambling to know why I can’t will myself back to productivity. Maybe history-travel will help, or at least consume the present time by reactivating my legacy circuitry to separate my thoughts and my thinking process. The circuits around that old world survive on in a pen’s rituals of violence, demarcating an old scramble here and a rush there, with inky paths no wider than the arm hairs of a colonizing expert in short sleeves. Syria is blocky and burgundy; I could redraw it, pinching to zoom-in and see where local storage and remote cloud resources might intersect, creating a flexible hybrid environment gripped by legacy infections – Sykes-Picot, 2.0. 

The steady bomb production lines don’t dot this map, though their linear progress – like a flurry of pen strokes endlessly circling a globe – is unerring, with a pulse that only becomes harsher with time. I decide to stamp locations with explosion marks up-close, none of them close to my imagined safety here, in the seeming-immunity of blurry work that’s just productivity-enhancing oblivion: A march of mouse-clicks, for redrawing boundaries and turning a labeled rectangle or trapezoid into an open-air, open-source project. 

That way, it can be squeezed by every hand in the wilderness, milled like cotton into purplish strands for faraway stragglers, passing by, to wear as magnets for the day’s ultraviolet heat. I had protection, but the pen-drawn empire pricks through my private cell-mediated immunity, redrawing itself 24/7 to carry new extractions and fresh armies to wear down fatigued defenses. 

The battle is coming home, and I’m poorly equipped in my ragged clothes, unable to stop wearing the progressive weight of the past, even under these palm trees and among the seashells at map’s edge. The sun above – unlike the North Wind or Zeus’ bolt-throwing countenance – should liberate me from these heavy garments, yet its hot persuasion is always minutes-old and it leaves behind a burnt-out impression – a side effect that I fret won’t go away, such that my sweat-tingly hair becomes a meta-anxiety, a disease of its own hemming me in a war with imported generic prescription meds. I go out one day to get more Vitamin D, stay in the next to avoid sunburn, and stew over the weekend thinking about cancer’s relationship with the stars. 

If I throw off the future-laundry, there’s sweat welled-up to steal back the cool from when it was first heated on faraway plantations behind map lines, by bloody hands and warm winds blowing seed, by humid quarters and textile-mills, endlessly remanufacturing the bad old days. Here’s the 19th century, refurbished. Lit by Olympian lightning and sweated dry by its heat, the hands are transparent: You might, if populating this yarn, see through to their veins’ violet residue, nearly indigo, or is it blue as blood itself, back into the sweatshops of their bodies to fuel fresh anxieties bound to exit therefrom, at the other end of the spectrum.